It would be easy to look at recent events in the world’s two most lucrative and popular football leagues and conclude that in the last 10 days, racism has made an unwanted reappearance in modern football. Luis Suarez’s infamous spat with Patrice Evra during Liverpool’s game against Manchester United on October 15, was followed by two further incidents of alleged racism this weekend; one involving John Terry and Anton Ferdinand during the west London derby at Loftus road this Sunday, the other involving former north London rivals Cesc Fabregas and Frédéric Kanouté as Barcelona hosted Seville on the same day. But just because it would be easy to make this conclusion, doesn’t mean that it would be right.
Each of the three incidents involves two opponents, one white and one black, sharing some choice language. The question is just what did they choose to say. In the case of Suarez and Evra, the Manchester United player accuses the Liverpool striker of calling him “certain word at least ten times.” The word in question is clearly a well-known racial pejorative and one which Suarez denies using. The Football Association is currently investigating the incident. The allegation which caused John Terry to issue a statement in which he said “I would never say such a thing and I’m saddened that people would think so” is slightly different. Ferdinand hasn’t accused Terry of anything, rather television footage from the game circulated on the internet shows Terry shout something at the QPR defender. Evidence in this footage is far from concrete and although the second word Terry appears to say wouldn’t be considered very polite, it is unclear whether the word which precedes it relates to the colour of Ferdinand’s skin or the quality of his eyesight. In Spain, the clash between Fabregas and Kanouté, the only incident of the three which lead to disciplinary action on the pitch (Kanouté was sent off for grabbing Fabregas), continued on Twitter, where Kanouté insisted “there was provocation and an insult”, while Fabregas categorically denied it was of a racial nature “to cry racism is cowardly and an easy option to excuse your own poor behaviour.”
In an era in which the public expects the most contentious incidents in high profile matches to be settled retrospectively through intense media scrutiny, it is a source of great frustration to both football fans and pundits that altercations such as those discussed above are likely to remain inconclusive. It doesn’t matter how many cameras are packed into a ground, there’s always likely to be instances where the only evidence for the nature of a spat will be one player’s word against another’s. Consequently in many cases, the Suarez/Evra incident being a good example, both parties involved become negatively tainted: one is suspected of lying, the other of being racist.
It is a mark of how far public attitudes towards racism in sport have progressed, that modern players now view being branded a racist as beyond contempt. Indeed if there is one thing the game seems to hold in lower regard than racists, it’s those who are thought to have made false accusations of racism. Terry justified his aggressive response to Anton Ferdinand saying, “I thought Anton was accusing me of using a racist slur against him” and Fabregas signed off his signed off his Twitter defence stating “I will not tolerate anyone accusing me of things that I’m not”. All too aware that mud sticks if you are seen to let it, the ferocity with which these charges are denied invites us to question the integrity of the accuser. The mistake we make is by accepting.
On the Monday following the Liverpool v Manchester United match the Guardian launched an online poll asking “Should Evra be banned if his claims prove false?” second guessing the outcome of an FA investigation that was barely 24 hours old. And today the Daily Mail has cast its considered and balanced view on both domestic incidents suggesting to Messers Evra and Ferdinand that they “could just put up with it and get on with the game.” Both newspapers seem keen to draw a line under events, without the necessary information available to do so. It is unlikely that any of the above episodes will be concluded decisively, but that doesn’t mean we should succumb to our desire to treat accusations of racial abuse as simple black and white issues.